Friday, September 29, 2006

'95 Lions Did The 0-3 Thing And Survived, Kinda

Recently on the NFL football telecasts, perhaps you've seen a graphic about how difficult it is to start a season 0-3 and still make the playoffs. It was on display especially during games in which one of the two teams playing was 0-2. And maybe you saw an anomaly among the list of recent teams who've bucked the odds.

The Detroit Lions -- yes OUR Detroit Lions -- are one of those 0-3 teams who turned it around and qualified for the NFL postseason dance. Typical that the 2006 edition finds themselves in the same hole. But no playoffs for them, I think it's safe to say. For fear of digressing, back to the Lions team that made pseudo history.

It was 1995, and the first win came on a Monday night against the 49ers at the Silverdome. It wasn't in the bag until a field goal attempt at the gun by San Francisco fluttered wide. The Lions were that close to falling to 0-4.

But that really didn't even kick start the Lions, the Monday night win. For after nine games the record was 3-6, and after the sixth loss in Atlanta, owner Bill Ford Sr. made a declaration -- a threat, really.

The Lions would have to qualify for the playoffs, Ford told the papers, if coach Wayne Fontes was to keep his job.

The threat was highly unusual coming from the loyal-to-a-fault Ford. But he was getting cranky because the Lions were in the seventh full season of the Fontes era, and the playoff record was 1-3 and now with a 3-6 record in '95, even a playoff berth -- which had kind of become annual under Fontes -- was in dire jeopardy.

Fontes haters loved the threat. They figured there was no way he could survive. If 0-3 teams were unlikely to make the playoffs, 3-6 squads were one football cleat in the grave.

But something funny happened on the way to Fontes' funeral. The Lions ran the table, winning their last seven games and roaring into the playoffs with a 10-6 record.

The '95 Lions were the team of Herman Moore and Brett Perriman at receiver, each catching over 100 passes, and the wondrous Barry Sanders carrying the football. They were led by QB Scott Mitchell, who surely must have signed off on a soul sale to the devil that summer. Mitchell threw for 32 TD passes, over 4,000 yards, and had a completion pct. near 60. The Lions offense was genuinely scary, and it carried them to their 7-0 finish.

As for how that season ended, let's not spend too much time on that. Offensive tackle Lomas Brown guaranteed a victory in the Wild Card game at Philadelphia. The Lions lost 58-37, after falling behind at one point, 51-7.

After the humiliating, embarrassing playoff loss, the Fontes haters were back out, convinced that FINALLY the Lions had done enough damage to their coach to get him dismissed.

But Ford, Threat Maker from earlier in the season, winked at the press and told them that hey, Fontes had fulfilled his end of the bargain: he made the playoffs, didn't he?

It was then that serious doubts were cast on Bill Ford as truly wanting a winner in Detroit. If making the playoffs and getting blown out was an acceptable bar, folks said, then why bother? I was one of those folks.

The next season, the Lions finished 6-10 and Fontes was shown the door.

"Fired? What do you mean fired?," Fontes joked at his defrockment, while Ford looked on nervously in front of the bemused media.

There aren't too many Fontes haters out now, because the Lions have only made the playoffs twice since he left, nearly ten years ago.

Good old days, indeed!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

It's The Defense, Stupid

Brendan Shanahan, last season, scored goals for the Red Wings at the rate of one every two games. A 40-goal man. The numbers of only the most elite of goal scorers in the NHL. It's not too trite to say that forwards that can deposit the puck in opposing goals with that frequency don't grow on trees.

Shanahan is gone now, fled to the bright lights of Broadway, although for not any more cash than what the Red Wings were offering him this past summer. We are still left to wonder what the real reason was for his flight. It hardly matters now, of course. Shanahan is a New York Ranger, which means he must really have wanted out of Detroit pretty badly. The Rangers haven't exactly been hockey's Shangri-La in recent years.

Where the Red Wings hope to find those 40 goals that Shanahan scored for them last season is one of the questions that faces the team as it gets ready to start yet another quest that can only be called a success if the franchise wins another Stanley Cup. That question, in fact, is one of nine that we pose in the October issue of Motor City Sports Magazine. Writer and online editor Ian Casselberry does a marvelous job in garnering some local and national NHL observers to help answer the questions, the answers to which should go a long way in determining how the Red Wings will fare in this season of transition.

The Red Wings have to find someone, or several someones, to muster up 0.5 goals per game this season. Johan Franzen might be one of those someones. Greg Johnson was a candidate, until recent health issues have put his season on hold. Seems like a large part of this task will fall on the shoulders of one Jason Williams.

Williams, who scored a career-high 21 goals last season, is being counted on heavily by coach Mike Babcock to ratchet that total up, maybe closer to 30. An improvement of nine -- 20% there already. Williams scored twice in last night's 5-3 exhibition victory over the Minnesota Wild.

But it can't be just Williams, or Williams and Franzen, or any other combination of folks. Forty goals aren't going to be easy to replace. So it says here that the Red Wings better get things in order in their own zone, and their own goal, if they want to compensate for Shanahan's departure. Meaning? Cut down on the goals against.

I maintain that it'll be the Red Wings' defense, and not their offense, that will determine how far they go on that annual quest for Lord Stanley's Cup. So quit worrying so much about replacing Shanahan's 40 goals, and start to work on cutting down the opponent's goals by that 0.5 per game. Or somewhere close.

Lidstrom is the "kid" among the Red Wings' top three defensemen

Dominik Hasek in goal is a good start. Or rather, a good ending. A good last line of defense. Despite his age, Hasek is still one of the very best goaltenders when his groin isn't going poof and his head is sitting evenly on his lanky shoulders. The top three Red Wings defensemen, however, are Nick Lidstrom (35 years old), Mathieu Schneider (37), and Chris Chelios (44; will turn 45 in January). So the four men being most counted on to keep opposing shots out of the net have a combined age of 157. That's almost 40 for those of you sans calculator.

So it's a daunting task, and one that should finally remove the Red Wings from the spectre of being a leading Cup contender, and in turn maybe taking some pressure off them. Which is never a bad thing, when you play in a league where lower playoff seeds tend to play in May and June with the magic pixie dust sprinkled upon them.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Clark's "Cemetery" Line Rang True -- Eventually

He stood in front of the media masses, towered over them really, and gazed across the room, full of pens and microphones that wanted to know, as usual, "Hey, what happened?"

Monte Clark wasn't in the mood to give very many answers. After the usual eulogy over his team in a losing effort that brought the Lions' record to 1-4 that October Sunday in 1983, head coach Clark lowered his voice into a somber stage whisper.

"See you at the cemetery," he said, stepping down from the podium and seeking the refuge of his squad's lockerroom.

It was then that Clark imagined he was a goner, about to get the ziggy. He was in his sixth season as Lions coach, and except for a tainted playoff appearance the season before (the Lions were 4-5 in the strike-shortened '82 campaign and lost to Washington in the first round), the team's success was limited to a single winning record, in 1980. Now the Lions had fallen to the Rams in Anaheim, and sported that 1-4 record. So Clark decided to beat the media pallbearers to the punch, and invited them to his own wake.

But Clark was not fired that week, nor the next. Nor the next. In fact, the Lions staged a remarkable (for them) recovery, and finished 9-7. It wasn't a great record, but it was good enough to win the rotten NFC Central.

Clark was 43-61-1 as Lions coach from '78 to '84

Then the Lions played the 49ers in San Francisco in the playoffs on New Year's Eve, and would have won, had Eddie Murray's right leg not gone crooked at the final gun. The TV image of Clark, praying on the sidelines before Murray's errant kick, was beamed into homes in Detroit and became the team's post-1957 history in a microcosm.

But so was his "See you at the cemetery" remark. Big Al (The Wayne Fontes Experience) and I have had fun assigning each Lions coach in the Bill Ford Sr. era with an infamous quote or event. Clark had two: the cemetery line, and the praying hands.

It's appropriate to think of Clark and his message of apparent foreboding, because the Lions are getting ready to play the Rams on the road, albeit in St. Louis.

Monte Clark is still hanging around Lions Land. He's employed as an assistant to Matt Millen. But from 1978-84, Clark coached the Lions. His time was the usual time for a Lions coach. Pretty good running back (read: Billy Sims), not bad defense (read: The Silver Rush), but question mark at the quarterback position. Surprise, surprise. Eric Hipple and Gary Danielson battled it out in the Clark Era, and when the dust settled, the Lions were still stuck in the spectre of mediocrity. After a 4-11-1 mark in 1984, Clark was finally laid to rest, so to speak, in that Lions coaching cemetery. Darryl Rogers replaced him. Heaven help us.

There'll be no such message of foreboding for current Lions coach Rod Marinelli, even if the team gets drilled under the St. Louis dome. His job is safe, if only because he's just four games into it. So Marinelli won't stand before the media "men" after Sunday's game and tell them to meet him at the cemetery. But if the Lions lose and drop to 0-4, his tone is sure to be funereal. He's a Lions coach, after all. What else is there to expect?

Monday, September 25, 2006

"Talented" Lions Just Can't Believe They're Winless

To hear the Lions tell it, they're the most talented winless team in the NFL. They have so much talent, they would have us think, that it's just unfathomable that they are looking for their first victory as the calendar turns to October.

Roy Williams, quickly becoming the team's spin doctor, said it again yesterday after the Lions' 31 to 24 loss to the Green Bay Packers. The Packers no longer seek their first win, thanks to the Lions.

"We realized we can score and we can really move the football," Williams said. "It hit home with a lot of guys.... We're oh and three. Guys aren't hanging their heads, guys aren't giving up, guys want to fight, because they know what kind of talent we have ... Sooner or later, it's going to turn around."

Here's Dre' Bly: "We're better than we played the last two weeks. We have a very talented defense."

Kevin Jones: "I don't think the record shows our talent."

Please. Stop.

They ARE right about one thing: the difference in talent in the NFL is razor thin. Most games come down to execution and lack of turnovers. And who can pressure the quarterback. And who can pass defend. And who can get off the field on third down. And who can hit open men for touchdowns.

The Lions didn't do any of those things, so they are still winless, despite all that world of talent.

It's the same old refrain for the losers of NFL games: in Week 1, the Lions got great defense, but no offense. In Game 2, they got neither, and committed tons of penatlies to boot. In Week 3, decent offense, no defense.

How a team can harass and beat up on the defending NFC champion Seahawks one week, and then disappear from the QB's personal space in the following two weeks is surely curious. The Lions allowed Brett Favre to pick them apart because they couldn't so much as breathe on him all afternoon. For even the most mediocre of quarterbacks, a complete lack of pass rush is poison to a defense. When the QB is Favre, it's akin to placing land mines all over Ford Field, only able to be detonated by the Lions.

The see saw that the Lions play on teetered and tottered, but never could they balance it. Good offensive series followed by a bad defensive series followed by a good offensive series, followed by a ...

You get the idea.

Next week, the Lions take their talented bunch to St. Louis, where Mike Martz gets to return to the turf of his past glory. The turf on which he presented the NFL's Greatest Show.

So what's his problem? The Lions are so talented, after all.

But not so talented, at the same time.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Groin, Groin, Gone?

He joined the Red Wings for the third time this summer, and instantly he acquired words at the beginning and end of his name.

Dominik Hasek wasn’t just Dominik Hasek. He was “41 year-old Dominik Hasek with the bad groin.”

The Red Wings brought Hasek back to the team after pursuing Eddie Belfour, unsuccessfully. Too bad they missed out on Belfour. He’s only 40.

So Hasek brings with him that wealth of experience, that Stanley Cup won with the Wings in 2002, an Olympic Gold Medal, and …the most famous groin in hockey, perhaps.

Maybe you’ve never had a groin injury. But that’s okay; it’s not something you need to experience in order to appreciate its nastiness. Just the words “groin injury” cause an internal wince. I don’t need to taste head cheese to know that I don’t like it, for example. Those two words also should never be placed next to each other, either: head and cheese.

Regardless, groin injuries hurt, and goalies are susceptible to them because of the way they move their legs, like spastic cheerleaders. And Hasek, the human slinky, flops and twists and stretches and slides so much, you wonder how he even HAS a working groin anymore. Anyway, I’m assuming it’s working; don’t think I’ll bother to ask him if it does.

But Hasek, in all seriousness, has famously injured his groin, and always at inopportune times. Not that there’s ever an “opportune” time to wreck one’s groin. He did it during his second stint with the Red Wings, in 2003, and did it again last winter at the Olympic Games. In both instances, he put himself out of action for the remainder of the NHL season. The Hockey Whisperers came out again on Hasek last winter, while the rest of his Ottawa Senators teammates were battling for the Stanley Cup.

“Dom Hasek is dogging it.”

“He could play if he WANTED to.”

They were the same whispers heard when he played in Buffalo, and the Hockey Whisperers followed him to Detroit, too. Always the same refrain: Dominik Hasek won’t play until he’s absolutely, positively, 100% ready. Like that’s a bad thing. But when you’re one of the greatest goalies to ever roam the planet, and your presence can darn tootin’ mean the difference between winning and losing a playoff series, folks kinda like you around and playing. Even if you’re not at that magical 100% level.

So when the Red Wings pursued Hasek, it came as a surprise to many hockey observers, including Hasek himself. You see, he wasn’t even certain he WANTED to play this season after enduring the slings and arrows in Ottawa. But when his agent, Rich Winter, told him Detroit was on the line, Hasek decided he did indeed want to play.

“When they tell me Detroit was interested, I said to get something done,” Hasek recalled last month about the July signing. “I loved Detroit when I played there.”

Four years ago, Hasek became the third different Wings goalie to win the Stanley Cup in the six seasons between 1997 and 2002

And Detroit loved him. The first time. We tend to do that here, if you win a Stanley Cup minding the net. In 2002, Dominik Hasek was the bee’s knees. In 2003, though, he was more like a mosquito.

Joseph was about as thrilled to see Hasek return as a high school kid is to see his parents come home early while he’s throwing a party.

Hasek retired after that Cup, making good on the threat he made during the season and the playoffs: if the Red Wings win, he’s going out on top. The Stanley Cup had been Hasek’s white whale, and once slain, there were no more Moby Dicks out there for him. Fine. The fans chanted for him to come back at the team’s parade, but his decision was steadfast. Again, fine. The Red Wings, never at a loss for a buck, went out and signed Curtis Joseph that summer. Once again, fine. Then Hasek announced after one season that he’d like to come back and play, and wouldn’t it be swell if it was for the Red Wings?

Not so fine.

Hasek’s return in the fall of 2003, with GM Ken Holland’s blessing, was somewhere on the level of New Coke in terms of good ideas. Joseph and the team was stinging from a first round knockout the previous spring, and now here comes Hasek, giving the Red Wings more money tied up into two goaltenders as some teams had amongst their entire roster.

Joseph was about as thrilled to see Hasek return as a high school kid is to see his parents come home early while he’s throwing a party. The two expensive netminders barely spoke to each other. Their relationship was as cold as the Joe Louis Arena ice. And teammates could see the awkwardness. Even hockey players.

But perhaps the blessing in disguise came when Hasek’s tender groin went “pop” on him early in the season. That removed the cancer that was spreading in the Red Wings lockerroom. He played in just 14 games that 2003/04 season. But again, the Hockey Whisperers came out. They looked crosseyed at Hasek, who announced late in the season that he would not be available to the Red Wings in any capacity beyond “goalie in street clothes.” Too soft, they said. Unwilling to play through pain.

Hasek signed with the Senators during the lockout, and that appeared to be it for him in hockey, let alone in Detroit. He played brilliantly last season before the Olympic debacle. Then after more whispers, he was ready to retire. Ready except for when Holland called, contract in one hand, Ben Gay in the other. Or whatever you put on funny groins nowadays.

Dominik Hasek and his delicate groin, both of which will turn 42 in January, intend on minding the Red Wings net for about 50 of the team’s 82 games this season. Then they plan on being in net for every one of the Red Wings’ playoff games.

Just don’t blow bubblegum around Ken Holland this season. If it pops, he’s liable to think it’s Hasek’s groin.

There IS precedent, after all.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Time For Lions To Put Up Or Shut Up With Mike Williams

"Play me or trade me."

It's been a caveat issued by player after player, in sport after sport, going back to the days when most ballplayers wore full beards and the years began with 18.

The reasoning is simple, even if the resolution isn't. Player wants to get out there and show his stuff. Team is reluctant to give him that opportunity. Player gets tired of sitting and wants to be traded to a club that'll show him some love. And way more trade requests are made than the ones actually reported.

Lions receiver Mike Williams is probably thinking of a new motto: Dress me or trade me.

If you think it's hard to get onto the football field buried on the depth chart, try it wearing slacks, sneakers, and a sweatshirt.

I don't know what transgressions Williams, the first round pick out of USC in 2005, has committed, beyond the well-documented weight violations. The words used to describe why he has been held out of the first two games, and why he was mostly persona non grata in the exhibition season, have been mysterious and cryptic.

PLAY him, already!

Nobody seems to want to come out and just SAY why Mike Williams is not considered a viable option at wide receiver. Nobody wants to lay it on the line. We are left to wonder.

Williams finally exploded -- though maybe with a poof rather than a boom -- after the 34-7 catastrophe in Chicago last Sunday. And you can hardly blame him.

"There has to be a poster boy in the (Rod) Marinelli era," Williams said in the lockerroom. "So I guess I'm the poster boy."

Williams went on to speak with dripping sarcasm about the way he was joined at the hip, by the media and the coaching staff, with the jettisoned Charles Rogers. If Williams is the poster boy, then Rogers is the cautionary tale.

Regardless, I'm getting tired of the games the Lions are playing with Williams. Put him on the field, let him do his thing, and let the chips fall where they may. If he plays well at 233 pounds, then so be it. Maybe his size can be an asset. Quit treating him like a bag of contaminated spinach. What could he possibly have done that's so aggregious that he doesn't even merit a uniform on game day?

Whatever point the Lions have hoped to make with Mike Williams, I can't imagine that it hasn't yet been made. The biggest points are always made on the field, anyway.

It's time to stop this head game nonsense, this war of mental attrition, and suit the kid up and throw some balls in his direction.


Thursday, September 21, 2006

Nothing Wrong With The NHL That Better Players Can't Solve, Lindsay Says

The question was direct, point blank, and appropriate for a man who never pulled punches -- on the ice or off.

"How many players that you coached," I asked Ted Lindsay, "could have made the Red Wings teams you played on in the 1950's?"

"None of them. Those were minor league players compared to the guys I played with," Lindsay said.

And what does the game need today that's missing?

"Better players," Terrible Ted said flatly.

I wasn't about to argue. Lindsay, 81, still looks like he could rough you up a little bit.

Former Red Wings Lindsay, Johnny Wilson, Shawn Burr and I sat down in the Alumni Room at Joe Louis Arena yesterday for the MCS Magazine Roundtable discussion, November issue. And we'd still be there talking hockey, past and present, if I didn't turn the microphones off and give our transcriber, Penny Sidick, a respite.

Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that each of them agreed that the NHL seems to subscribe to the "If it ain't broke, FIX IT" mentality.

"Why can't they just let them play hockey?," Burr -- a Red Wing from 1985-95 -- wondered. "If I was commissioner, I'd send a survey out to all the fans, instead of All-Star ballots, asking them various questions about the game: Do you want fighting? Yes or No. Do you like the way the game is officiated? Yes or No."

"We had the greatest game in the world and we changed it. We change it all the time," Burr said.

"Why can't I just give you a little tug with my stick?," Lindsay said, demonstrating on my arm. "Guys today, they couldn't knock a fly off your arm, yet they get whistled for a penalty."

"Hockey is an aggressive, physical game," Wilson said. "Nowadays, players are thinking too much out there. You have videotape and assistant coaches and spotters and all these systems, and they can't just play. They can't hit. They can't fight."

"Terrible Ted"

Lindsay, as usual, put it all into perspective.

"All I know is, when I played hockey, if my team had the puck, I was on offense (oh-fence), and when we didn't, I was on defense," he said. "I still don't understand this Left Wing Lock, for example."

Lindsay coached the Red Wings in 1980, and Wilson from 1971-73. Both of them indicated that few of the players they coached could have been their teammates back in the day.

Johnny Wilson, the Original NHL Iron Man, played in 580 consecutive games

I reminded Wilson that I thought he got the shaft when he was fired in 1973, after the team had missed the playoffs by just two points. The GM who fired him was Ned Harkness.

"Darkness with Harkness," Wilson said.

That's another Roundtable entirely.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

37 Years? Sure, If You Start Young

I can remember the moment it began, albeit barely. And since the moment involved the Lions, it’s no wonder that my indoctrination into Detroit sports began with not just losing, but with fantastic losing.

November 8, 1970. The Lions were playing the New Orleans Saints down in the bayou. And they would have won, if a kicker with half a foot and a stub of a right arm named Tom Dempsey hadn’t picked the end of the game to boot his way into the NFL record books. Dempsey kicked a still-record 63-yard field goal at the final gun, and the Lions lost, 19-17.

I was watching from home, age seven. I remember the hysteria in the announcer’s voice as the kicked football fluttered over the crossbar, just barely. And that was my first memory as a Detroit sports fan and, eventually, journalist.

So I use the 1970-71 season as my first, making this the 37th season of living, dying, laughing, crying, and swearing. Sometimes all in the same game. With the Lions, sometimes all during the same play.

I’ve seen guys with nicknames like Bad News and Sweet Lou and Worm, and coaches coined Daddy Rich and the Big Buck and Muddy.

I watched a baseball inning almost begin at Tiger Stadium with the Tigers short one centerfielder. Then I watched Chet Lemon race from the dugout moments before the first pitch, zipping his fly and fastening his belt.

I saw Isiah Thomas score 16 points in 90 seconds during a playoff game at Joe Louis Arena, and that’s something that names like Bird and Jordan and Magic never did – never came close to doing, if you want to know the truth.

I had an enraged Windsor Spitfires coach race around the perimeter of the hockey rink at Cobo Arena, with the expressed intent on tearing me limb from limb. Thank goodness for Detroit’s finest, and the ability to blend into a crowd.

I cried when the Pistons lost Game 7 of their brutal series with the Bulls in 1974, ending abruptly their best season in franchise history, to date. Then I saw coach Ray Scott last March, some 32 years after the fact, and he told me that his guys cried, too.

I was there when Kirk Gibson salted away the Tigers’ world championship in 1984 with his homerun off Goose Gossage, and I was just a few feet away from a burning police car on the way out of the stadium. Yet I wasn’t scared. I wonder why.

I remember listening on the radio when Lions receiver Chuck Hughes lie motionless on the grass at Tiger Stadium, already dead of a massive heart attack, and announcer Bob Reynolds saying over and over, “I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.”

I was at Olympia Stadium when the Red Wings were set to take on the expansion Washington Capitals for the first time and when the Caps skated onto the ice with white hockey pants to go along with their patriotic red and blue motif … well, if a hockey crowd can be heard giggling, then I heard it.

I saw Brooks Robinson, no less, drop a foul popup under no duress. And even at age 12 I knew I had seen something that should have caused my jaw to drop. I think it may have, come to think of it.

Earl “The Twirl” Cureton was having lunch with me at Ginopolis, discussing a possible TV project, and out of nowhere he grinned at me and said, “Y’all gained a few pounds, haven’t you?” The perils of being married to an Italian-Polish wife.

I can still see White Sox pitcher Wilbur Wood flopping around like a fish out of water in front of the pitcher’s mound at Tiger Stadium, his knee shattered by a Ron LeFlore line drive. And I wish I could get the image out of my head, believe me.

When Dickie Vitale’s U-D Titans upset Marquette on the Warriors’ home floor in Milwaukee on local TV, circa 1976-77, I was watching when he literally danced a little jig during the postgame interview on the court.

Once I shared stories of premature babies with Braves pitcher Steve Avery, whose wife had just had one. Ours was born two months early, and in talking I found out that Avery and our daughter share the same birthdate. Imagine that.

I spent Thanksgiving at the Silverdome in 1983, and my timing couldn’t have been better, as the Lions destroyed the Steelers, 45-3. Yet one of my most vivid memories of that game was a wonderfully done banner with an image of Mr. T on it that said, I PITY PITT.

Travis Fryman hit for the cycle against the Yankees in 1992, and I was with Bob Zahari at the ballpark. When Fryman’s cycle-clinching triple was on its way out to right center, as it was in the air, I shouted, “This will be the first Tigers cycle since Hoot Evers in 1950!” Of course I was right, and Zahari still laughs about that today.

I was at Olympia Stadium the night the Red Wings played their final game there, and when Greg Joly scored the tying goal late in the third period, I thought the deafening crowd noise would save the city a wrecking crew tab. Honest to goodness. Then I remember seeing a couple of guys dragging an entire row of attached seats out the front door. Where they were going to put it, I’m still dying to know.

Shortly after Scotty Bowman became Red Wings coach, our TV crew was setting up to cover the team’s first exhibition game at Joe Louis Arena, and Bowman stopped me, asking me where the referees’ lockerroom was. I told him – so now my secret is out, and I hope the officials will forgive me.

I was standing in front of Chris Shelton’s locker in July, asking him what had gone wrong with his swing, and for a moment I thought he was going to ask that I depart, and not so nicely. About a week later, the Tigers traded for Sean Casey and Shelton got sent to the minors – to work on his swing.

I remember the late, great U-M football radio announcer Bob Ufer and the horn he blew into the microphone every time the Wolverines scored a touchdown. And I remember him saying things like, “Bless his maize and blue heart!” and calling U-M coach Bo Schembechler “General George Patton Schembechler.”

Speaking of Michigan-Ohio State, I remember seeing a bumper sticker on a car, circa 1979, that said “Woody Is A Pecker,” referring to Buckeyes’ coach Woody Hayes. And another that said “Oh How I Hate Ohio State,” which I think is my favorite.

I was in the Pistons’ lockerroom after a win back in 1984 and I asked Kent Benson if that was the best Pistons team he’d ever played on, a question that deserved the derisive cackles that it got from other nearby players

Tom Dempsey did more than beat the Lions with his deformed foot back in 1970, I reckon. He kicked me into a fire that constantly burns, and from which I never hope to get rescued.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Marinelli Wants To Fall On The Sword, But What's He To Do?

When the Pistons finished the 1980-81 season with a 21-61 record, I remember actually thinking that that wasn't so bad, because the season prior, they rode in at 16-66. Still 60+ losses, still an awful record, but a "better" awful. Besides, such a hideous mark enabled them to draft Isiah Thomas that summer.

The Lions are 21-61 in the Matt Millen era, yet I don't see an Isiah-like savior on the horizon. Unless there’s someone out there who can pass protect, hold on to the football without dropping it, and most of all, who won’t self-destruct.

The Lions committed so many penalties in yesterday's 34-7 drubbing in Chicago, especially in the first quarter, that I'm surprised the Soldier Field turf wasn't stained yellow.

"We laid an egg," tackle Jeff Backus said. And he was one of the egg layers, with a false start penalty. He may have committed more infractions, except I stopped keeping track of the yellow flags when the Lions' penalties started to outnumber their actual plays from scrimmage, or so it seemed.

The nice thing about covering the Lions is that you don't have to learn new postgame comments. You can basically just recycle the same ones over and over, and nobody would know the difference.

"A lot of mistakes were our mistakes."

"We have to be accountable as a team."

"We just had penalties all over, just like last week. We've got to eliminate those."

"It was disappointing."

"We're grown men. We get paid to do a job, and we've got to do it better than what we showed on the field."

And the golden oldie, "We didn't come out ready today."

That last one would be the title track of the Lions' Greatest Hits album.

Coach Rod Marinelli tried to fall on the sword. "I failed. I'll take the bullet right in the head."

No need for that, Rod

Nice, except he should know better: the Lions don't shoot themselves in the head -- they point the pistol squarely at their feet and pull the trigger.

The Lions continue to be -- with apologies to Forrest Gump -- like a box of chocolates. You never know, from week-to-week, what you're going to get. Swarming, dominating defensive line play in Game 1 against the Seahawks, constantly harrassing QB Matt Hasselbeck. Yesterday, Bears QB Rex Grossman, I'll bet, simply took his jersey off and hung it up, ready for next week. Because I doubt it needed cleaning.

At least the Lions went to Roy Williams a little bit -- to the tune of six catches for 71 yards. In fact, QB Jon Kitna's passer rating was a very un-Lions-like 97.9 (23-30, 230 yds, no INT). Yet the Lions have only one TD in two games -- a Kitna sneak. But I'm not getting my shorts in a knot over the offense, because that's going to take time to master. In fact, so is everything else. Marinelli needs help, and he needs time. Expectations should have been very modest this year -- and i'm talking 4-12, 5-11 kind of modest.

But what WILL be troubling if it doesn't improve is the amount of penalties this team takes. Confusion reigns on the offense, hence the false starts and illegal shifts, etc. But the illegal use of hands call -- away from the play -- on CB Jamar Fletcher (who?) that nullified a Boss Bailey INT return for a touchdown was killer. The Lions could have closed to within 24-14, and momentum would have shifted. But the Bears retained the ball, and scored eventually (natch), to put the game on ice.

Rod Marinelli wants to take all the blame for yesterday's debacle -- the second straight flat-out embarrassment in Chicago. But I think his words smack of the deeply disappointed parent who stares at his child in a jail cell and says, "I guess I must have failed as a parent."

It's the child's fault -- always.

Maybe that's the Lions' problem: they've been hanging out with the wrong group of kids. Or maybe there's just too many of those types on their own roster.

Friday, September 15, 2006

No Moral Victories: Tigers Must Make Playoffs For 2006 To Be A Success

(I'm cheating today. The following post can also be seen at my baseball blog, Where Have You Gone, Johnny Grubb? Enjoy. But you only have to read it once.)

Joaquin Andujar, eccentric pitcher with the Cardinals and Astros, was once asked to sum up a pennant race in one word.

"Youneverknow," was his reply, making up a new word from three.

It's also my response, whenever I hear an apologist for the Tigers' last month of follies tell me, "Hey, if you had been told in April that the Tigers would be in first place in September, you'd have been thrilled."

Sure -- in April.

But after 146 games, it's an awful attitude to take. Because, as Andujar so wonderfully said, "Youneverknow."

Youneverknow when you're going to get this chance again. Youneverknow how many more times you'll be set up, as the Tigers were in August, for a romp to the playoffs. Youneverknow if this was THE year, and heaven help us if they fritter it away.

There's nothing wrong with expectations changing from April to September. They should, frankly. If a team proves itself to be better than the pasty-face prognosticators on TV and radio thought they would be coming out of spring training, then good for them. But go out there and grab it; don't assume that this is going to be an annual thing.

Good, young, homegrown talent is terrific, and it's still the best way to build a winner. But just because a ballclub has a wealth of it is not a guarantee that the winning will pour out of the spicket like water. Young players can be derailed. ALL players can have down years. The competition is trying, too.

I hope like heck that the Tigers aren't, subconsciously, satisfied with the season they've had thus far. Three years ago, they had to play like the dickens to avoid setting a MLB record for most losses in a season. That kind of pressure was heavy. Today, they play to avoid becoming a different kind of cautionary tale. No team has been 40 games over .500 on August 7, as the Tigers were, and failed to qualify for the postseason.

A playoff-less season, at this point, would go down as one of the biggest collapses in baseball history. Doubtful folks will be praising them for their improvement over last season, should that collapse materialize. And nor should they.

I'm sorry, but no pats on the back at this point. There are 16 games remaining. The Tigers are going to have to play them with spit and vinegar if they want to get into the playoffs. They've gone past the point of moral victories. There's only room for real victories -- such as a playoff berth.

Will this chance happen again next year? Or the year after that?


Thursday, September 14, 2006

Urlacher Knows It's Best To Let Actions Speak

The last time the Lions were NFL champions, Joe Schmidt played middle linebacker for them.

The last time the Bears were NFL champions, Mike Singletary played middle linebacker for them. And Schmidt was 54 years old.

I'm not sure who will play middle linebacker for the Lions the next time they are the NFL's best. Some say the question is moot. But I do know who will be playing middle linebacker for the Bears the next time the Monsters of the Midway capture the Super Bowl: Brian Urlacher.

There's no question, in my mind, that Urlacher will help lead the Bears to the pinnacle of pro football. Maybe this season, or next. Certainly soon.

The '85 Bears used a combination of Singletary and a beautific running back named Walter Payton to win the whole enchilada. It was the same recipe the team tried twenty years earlier, with Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers, but they were points of light surrounded by a black hole. The '69 Bears, for example, finished 1-13. The other Butkus-Sayers years weren't much better. Singletary-Payton had some help.

The Bears, under head coach Lovie Smith, are without question the class of the NFC North, nee Central. They don't have a spectacular offense, but a good one. No matter, because their defense is good enough to carry them through some offensive mishaps. In their case, the defense is so dominating that a "mishap" on offense could mean the team doesn't score in double digits, and yet wins. If the Seahawks can do it -- 9-6 victors over the Lions last Sunday -- then the Bears certainly can.

It all revolves around Urlacher. He absolutely swarms the ball; I don't know of too many plays when he's not in close proximity to the ball carrier when the whistle blows. He's more athletic than Butkus, though maybe not as punishing. He's one of the few linebackers in the NFL who can be so disruptive as to blow up opposing teams' entire offensive schemes. He's a Hall of Fame linebacker in a city where they know a thing or two about such players.

I thought it was very impressive that Urlacher didn't take the bait during the weekly teleconference with NFL beat writers about the Lions' Roy Williams and his "kinda, sorta" guarantee of victory.

"Next question."

That was his reply anytime someone tried to get Uhrlacher to comment on Williams' words. Butkus may have said a thing or two, but likely he would have done so with dark humor. Urlacher chose to avoid it, and in doing so he simply reiterated this fact: greatness comes on the field, not in india ink on newsprint.

There's no need for boasts or guarantees or smack talk when you're busting up people on a regular basis every Sunday. No need to fire off verbal missiles when you can torpedo an opposing ball carrier, knocking the snot out of him. It's hard to make guarantees when you're gasping for breath.

Come to think of it, Schmidt and Singletary didn't do much talking, either. The field was their floor.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Red Wings Have Some Question Marks, And That's OK

The Red Wings will load themselves up on a bus to Traverse City for training camp soon. They will tell us that the goal for them is simple, and the same as it's been for the past 12 or 13 seasons: to win the Stanley Cup. Anything less than that, they will say, is unacceptable.

Yeah, yeah.

The Red Wings head into the 2006-07 season with the following on their recent resume:

--The signing of a 41 year-old (he'll be 42 in January) goalie with a bad groin
--The loss of their captain of 19 seasons to retirement
--The fleeing of a 40-goal scorer to the New York Rangers
--The drumming out of town of their #1 goalie, who's found a home in St. Louis
--A 44 year-old (he'll be 45 in January) defenseman
--The return of center Greg Johnson, several years removed from his better days
--The signing of nasty defenseman Danny Markov

So what does it all mean?

Most likely, less than the #1 seed in the Western Conference. But that's OK. Being Numero Uno hasn't always done this franchise well in the postseason. Mostly, it hasn't, in fact. The Red Wings will probably be that 3-6 seed that lies in the grass, ready to upset someone in the first round. Again, OK. It'll be nice to ruin someone else's high hopes for a change.

Hockey training camp has always flown under the radar here, even in the wake of Stanley Cups. Too much other stuff going on. Wake me when it's October, hockey fans say. Of course, upon awakening, those fans might find Tigers playoff baseball on their TV and radio dials, jockeying for position. Once again, OK.

But this camp is kinda different because, for all their blather, I don't see the Red Wings as a top three Cup contender. They'll be a good team, and may get 90-98 points, but I don't think they should be a favorite to skate the Cup around the ice in June. I think they have too many questions, too many holes to fill -- roster-wise and emotionally -- to be placed among the league's elite, at least right now. They've come back to the pack a bit, which means the pressure shouldn't be squarely on them come playoff time.

Again, OK.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Lion Guaranteeing Victory? Thatta Roy!

The Lions have won 21 games in the past five seasons. They have one playoff victory since 1957 – and none on the road. They are about as far removed from winning football tradition as Star Jones is from Barbara Walters’ Christmas list.

“We will win this game,” wide receiver Roy Williams says. He’s talking about Sunday’s tilt in Chicago. “You all can take that as a guarantee or whatnot, but we will win this game.”

Something about a Lions player guaranteeing a victory makes me think of Charlie Brown guaranteeing he’s gonna finally kick the football out of Lucy’s hold.

The Bears shutout the Packers 26-0 on Sunday. They are the class of the division, mainly because they possess one of the best defenses in the NFL. The won 11 games last season, and will probably win as many, or more, in 2006. But no matter, according to Williams.

“When we play the way we’re supposed to play, like our defense played Sunday … I don’t think there’s no team in this league that can beat us.”

Already he’s qualifying his “guarantee.” The Lions are 21-59 since 2000 because for at least 59 games in 2001-2005, they haven’t played the way they’re “supposed” to play.

Look, I think Roy Williams’ confidence is admirable. I’m happy that he feels so strongly about his team’s chances in Chicago on Sunday. But then he says things like this:

“We watched film today. It was stupid how close we were to putting 40 points on the board, and it’s ridiculous…”

“No defense can stop us, in my opinion.” (No defense HAS to stop them; the Lions usually take care of that graciously).

And when he says things like that, I tune out.

Guarantees in sports are high-risk, low-return propositions. They mainly serve to fire up your opponent, and put more pressure on your teammates. Just ask Rasheed Wallace. If you actually back one up, it’s mainly considered to be out of happenstance than anything inspired by the actual guarantee itself.

We can all blame Joe Namath for this, you know. Sports guarantees were unheard of until that night a few days before Super Bowl III, when Namath stood up in front of a banquet crowd in Miami and declared his Jets would be the victors over the heavily-favored Colts. It is legendary stuff today, but did you know that the event at which Namath puffed out his chest was so lightly regarded that the only newspaper that had the story was the Miami Herald?

Ever since Namath’s successful guarantee, athletes have tried to duplicate it. Most have failed. And even the ones that turned out true haven’t gotten nearly the mileage as Broadway Joe’s declaration.

Believe it or not, this isn’t the first such guarantee by a Detroit Lion.

Tackle Lomas Brown, high from the nectar of a seven-game winning streak to close the 1995 season, told us that there was no way the Lions could lose their playoff game in Philadelphia. Uh-uh. No way, no how. Book it, and I’ll see you in the next round, Lomas said.

The Lions fell behind the Eagles 51-7. They lost 58-37.

That was the last guarantee of victory by a Lions player. Until yesterday.

The fans have guaranteed plenty – mainly Thanksgiving Day game wins. Or games against supposedly suspect opponents, especially at home. They’ve been wrong most of the time, too.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Black-Clad Lions Not Black-and-Blue Enough For Their Coach

Now, we KNOW that Mike Martz didn't come to Detroit to be the Lions' offensive coordinator just to pad Jason Hanson's field goal numbers. It's absurd to think that he forced the franchise to abandon the Just Toast offense so the team could practice its snap-and-hold from anything beyond extra point range. And we should also have known that the players wouldn't grasp Martz's convoluted schemes and formations and plays in 60 minutes, either.

The Lions lost a tough one yesterday, and where have you heard that before?

The other team put together a game-winning drive at the most crucial of moments, and where have you seen that before?

The offensive line couldn't hold their blocks consistently, and how foreign is that around here?

But here's what's new: a head coach who won't go into snake oil salesman mode -- and who'll refuse to sugar coat anything.

"Bad start. We're 0-1."

"I'm not interested in playing well. I'm interested in winning."

"This isn't good enough."

Pretty heady stuff, considering it was just the season's first game, and that it follows the nicey-nice blather we've been subjected to in the past. Rod Marinelli seemed inconsolable, and that equates to a good start, in my mind. He wants us to swallow this defeat straight, like a shot of bourbon. With no chaser. At least, that's what he wants his players to do, and that's OK by me.

The Lions defense was, dare I say, spectacular, so it would be tough to get on their case for allowing the game-winning drive -- despite its VERY poor timing. Yet somehow I don't think Marinelli will see it that way. He decided to punt with less than four minutes left, instead of going for a first down or attempting a 55-yard field goal, because he wanted to put the game into the hands of his defense. And, if you were paying attention at the beginning of this paragraph, you know how well the "D" played for the first 56 minutes. But he also spoke with exasperation during his postgame presser about the drive -- as if his defense had let him down. None of this "Those guys played their heart out" stuff. The results weren't there at the end, and too bad if you played great for 56 minutes. Football still is a 60-minute game.

Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck was harassed all afternoon. All-World running back Shaun Alexander wasn't even All-Game. Nor was he All-Seahawk. That distinction goes to Maurice Morris, whose back-breaking 17-yard run the play before the game-winning field goal saved the NFC Champs from playing an overtime against a fired-up, albeit offensively-challenged opponent. Alexander finished with 51 yards on 19 carries. Of course, we're used to those kinds of rushing numbers here -- but from the Lions' backs, not the opponent's.

The Lions played hard, and that was nice -- even if that won't pacify Marinelli. The offense was clearly a work in progress, and that shouldn't have been shocking. But I must admit, the desire to put Roy Williams on the side of a milk carton in the first half brought back some hideous Mooch memories. And it's not like the Bears, next week's opponent, have a defense that's chopped liver, either. I'm sure somewhere in Martz's lexicon is the simple phrase, "Block your man." If not, it's likely to be inserted this week. QB Jon Kitna was as maligned as Hasselbeck at times, and thus many passing plays either didn't develop, or were reduced to the dump-off -- another haunting image from the Mornhinweg/Mariucci years.

Kevin Jones was a beast, and his game total of 35 yards rushing ought to be investigated. It sure looked like more than that. Heck, I think for effort alone they should tack on another 35. But regardless, this kid is going to turn this town on -- book it. He's flash and bash, a brutal runner. He'll be an absolute joy to watch in the years ahead.

But the bottom line is "Bad start. We're 0-1." The coach says so. He's not selling us anything folks. He's going to let the won/loss record do that for him. Recently I wrote that the 2006 Lions shouldn't be judged on their win total -- that their success could be measured in other more esoteric ways. I was wrong. The 2006 Lions will be judged by their head coach -- a black-and-white guy in a black-and-blue division, leading a usually Honolulu Blue-clad team. Yesterday the Lions tried their hideous black jerseys. So for one day they, too, were black-and-blue. Just not black-and-blue enough. The coach says so.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

My Kind Of Golf Bag: One Club

There was a time when I took my putting seriously, even if I was doing it with a red ball and through a windmill.

Something tells me that miniature golf courses are going the way that drive-in movie theatres went in the 1980’s. Namely, there ain’t too many left.

For sure, my favorite course, on Middlebelt Road just north of Plymouth Road, is so long gone there’s probably nary a stubby pencil left anywhere on the premises. I once hit a GM sign there – and it wasn’t part of the course. More on that later.

Gerbs, Lank, and I would ride our bikes – a good 20 minute jaunt – to the Putt-Putt on Middlebelt and play so much in the summertime that I’m surprised the bottoms of our sneakers didn’t turn Felt Green. I used so many tiny pencils that I could have rebuilt a Redwood.

First, so you know, there were miniature golf courses, and there were Putt-Putt golf courses. Big difference. No, really. Putt-Putt© courses were conspicuous by their garish orange motif. I mean it, there was orange everywhere: the rails were orange; the wooden boards that bordered each hole were orange, the small shack where you rented your stuff was orange. Even the stubby pencil – with its 1/250th inch long nob of lead – was orange. I can’t imagine that place around Halloween.

But, ahh, that game! It wrapped itself around us like a serpent for a couple, three summers in the late-1970s. Faster and faster we’d ride as we crossed Plymouth, eagerly anticipating “teeing” the colored balls on the rubber mat for strategic whacks with the only club you needed, the no-frills putter.

A word about teeing off: it was all about angles, my friend. For each mat had three or four tiny indentations on it, left to right, for ball placement. Depending on the hole’s layout, you wouldn’t necessarily place the ball square in the middle. Since I’m convinced that mini-golf holes were all designed by Salvador Dali, sometimes the best bet was to balance your aptly colored ball way left, or way right, at the rubber mat/tee.

But one of the best parts of mini-golf played at the orangey Putt-Putt was what happened after you played – specifically when the last ball was sunk into the funhouse of golf holes at Hole #18.
Putt-Putt used to offer all sorts of coupons and gimmicks to keep you coming back. Perhaps the most fun was the Match-a-Color game.

You know how some restaurants still have those very retro banks of numbers in the corner where the ceiling meets the wall, once used to signify which waitress’ order was ready? If you don’t, humor me anyway. In Match-a-Color, you kept your eye on the bank of colored lights hanging from the roof of the (orange) cashier’s shack. The colors corresponded with the colors of golf balls used: blue, red, yellow, and green. If you got a hole-in-one, and your ball’s color matched the color flashing at the time, you won a free game. Pretty heady stuff.

Naturally, this spawned some cheating and some running.

See, just because you got the ace, it didn’t mean you had your free game in the golf bag. There was still the matter of rushing to show the ball to the cashier. The Middlebelt Putt-Putt had three different courses, which meant there were lots of people, small ponds, and doghouses to dodge – especially if you were near the outer perimeter of the property. It was not uncommon to reach the shack, out of breath – just as the flashing color changed. Sorry, Charlie.

Sure, you could try to cheat – try to claim an ace when you really didn’t get one, just to show a matching color ball for a free game. But, two things about that notion: a) the flashing colors didn’t change all that often – except when you didn’t want them to – so you might play an entire game without the “flasher” changing to your ball’s color; and b) the clerks and cashiers seemed to have eyes all over the course. And they weren’t above calling you out as mini-golf’s version of Barry Bonds, either. If they sensed – strongly – that you were bluffing about your hole-in-one, back you went, minus coupon.

Another rich item was the three-foot tall post at every hole with a convenient metal plate affixed to the top. This was for scorecard placement while you penciled in everyone’s, well, score. And there was one at every hole.

Putt-Putt kept the fun going right thru the final hole, too.

Each course’s 18th hole involved tiered landscaping. Meaning, you sank the ball in the upper level, and it would drop down onto the lower level, from one of three tubes. Somehow, it was randomized. HOWEVER, if you were a lucky putter, an orange (natch) ball would pop out onto the lower level. An orange ball also meant a free game. I still don’t know how your ball would go in and not come out, but that’s part of the magic, I suppose. But the fun STILL didn’t end there. The final cup in each 18th hole’s layout was the only one from which you couldn’t reach in and retrieve your ball. Once you sank it, it was gone – to the world of wherever colored golf balls go when they’re sunk for good. This meant that if you were fortunate enough to snag an orange ball, you’d best not accidentally sink it in the 18th green’s cup without placing your hand there to save it. Believe me – many an orange ball (and coupons) were lost through carelessness.

Oh, and that GM sign? There was a GM plant adjacent to the Middlebelt Putt-Putt, and one of its signs loomed above the course like a water tower. After dozens of visits, we found out you could smack the ball real hard from a certain hole’s tee and it would skip off the barriers and high into the air. The GM sign was a target on occasion. I remember hitting it once. No, I didn’t win a free game. Just lifelong memories.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Cutting Of Young Unfair, But That's Sports

The running back with the problematic knee entered the visitors lockerroom, looking for a stall with his number and named taped above it. He looked and looked. It was nearing the end of the 1971 exhibition season.

"Where's my locker?," he said, surveying the visitors room in Philadelphia's Veteran Stadium. "Where's my locker?"

Defensive tackle Alex Karras watched Nick Eddy, once a promising back from Notre Dame, be called over by the equipment manager.

"Didn't they tell you?," the manager said to Eddy as Karras overheard. "The team cut you this morning."

And as Eddy slumped on a stool, his heart broken, Karras burst into head coach Joe Schmidt's office. There, he blasted the coach for not properly informing Eddy, who'd given his heart and soul to the Lions and got nothing but injury-plagued seasons in return. Karras, his voice quaking, shouted at Schmidt after watching Nick Eddy go through his humiliation. And, a week or so later, Karras himself got the axe, ending his brilliant career.

The above incident, culled from Karras' book, Even Big Guys Cry, was probably not repeated yesterday in the Tigers' clubhouse when manager Jim Leyland informed Dmitri Young that he was no longer a member of the team. Clearly it wasn't, as Leyland himself delivered the news, not equipment manager Jim Schmakel.

But Young still had to suffer the indignity of going around the room, hugging now ex-teammates and shaking their hands, classily telling them to "go win this thing." Some of them didn't even know he'd been cut.

There's more to this than meets the eye, rest assured. What it is, we may never know. Or, we'll know much later, when the interest level has been reduced to a footnote. But Young was not cut purely for "performance" issues, as the team is trying to feed us. The timing is too odd, the lack of any writing on the wall too peculiar to ignore.

Jim Northrup told me recently that in August 1974, when he and Norm Cash were lopped off the roster on the same day -- Cash cut and Northrup dealt to Montreal -- Tigers brass notified him when he got to the ballpark. Cash, Northrup said, heard the news on the radio driving in to Tiger Stadium.

"We tried to call you but you were on the golf course," Northrup said, repeating GM Jim Campbell's words to him in the bowels of the stadium.

"That's a load of (expletive)," Northrup told me. "I was home all day, and I told them that."

Kelly Tripucka found out he was traded to Utah in 1986 because a kid in the lockerroom of the country club where he was golfing shouted the news, not knowing that Tripucka was there. It happens that way sometimes.

So Dmitri Young, always a good soldier, as far as I knew, has been cashiered in the first week of September. He's another of the few who were around for that horrific 43-119 season of 2003. Already folks are musing that the move to cut him was a good one. They cite that word that is strangely unique to sports -- chemistry.

"The team started losing as soon as he returned," MCS Magazine's Director of Marketing Chris Okroy said this morning. Then he used that word -- chemistry. "Everyone was afraid the team chemistry would suffer...," Chris said, his voice trailing off, which was supposed to be my cue to nod knowingly.

I'm sorry, but I don't think the Tigers' 9-19 quagmire can be laid at the doorstep of Dmitri Young. His BA since his return from rehabilitation is .292. Find me any Tigers who have a similar average in those 28 games.

I think the move stinks, and that better hands have been dealt. UNLESS something happened that forced the team's hand.

Otherwise, unfair.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Verba, Woody Conspicuous By Their Jewelry

Ross Verba has played in the NFL since 1997. He was the first rookie to start at left tackle in a Super Bowl -- a victory, too. He was out of football in 2005, a contract holdout from the Cleveland Browns, but he's started 100 of the 106 games he's played in the league. He's never played in a Pro Bowl, but he's been dependable. He will be the Lions' starting left guard, partly because of his assertion shortly after hitting town: "I don't NOT start."

Damien Woody will start at right guard for the Lions. He's been to two Super Bowls, winning both. He's an eight-year veteran who has Pro Bowl potential. He's also as reliable as they come, and durable.

Verba and Woody, "big uglies" in the interior offensive line, will join left tackle Jeff Backus, center Dominic Raiola, and right tackle Rex Tucker in holding they key to the Lions' offense in 2006.

Jon Kitna? Terribly important. Just ask Joey Harrington. Or Scott Mitchell. Or Chuck Freaking Long.

Kevin Jones? A maybe-stud at running back. Perhaps even a fantasy footballer's dream someday.

Roy Williams? Loads of NFL GMs would love to have big #11 catching passes for them, and the last time you could say that about a Lion receiver, Herman Moore and Brett Perriman were in town.

Mike Martz? Football followers love to use the word "genius". Martz has been called that, because of his convoluted offensive schemes, and his myriad of plays. 400 and counting, last I checked.

But none of the above people matter -- NONE of them -- if Verba, Woody, Backus, Raiola, and Tucker don't block, open holes, and generally control the line of scrimmage on a consistent basis. Kitna doesn't have time to throw. Jones won't have anywhere to go. Williams won't be a factor. Martz will go from genius to dunce.

One of the first things new head coach Rod Marinelli said at his introductory press conference in January was that he believes in the notion that success in the trenches will equal wins in the standings. It also goes along nicely with his "Pound the Rock" mantra. Naturally, his pedigree as a defensive line coach figures into that reasoning.

But it's sound reasoning. The Lions haven't had a top-shelf offensive line, a steady, cohesive unit, in years. Even when the great Barry Sanders was a whirling dervish in Detroit, folks were slow to give the offensive line credit. "Barry does it by himself," they cried. Often it was true. So the idea of putting the team's fate into the hands of men who stand 6'5" and weigh 300+ pounds isn't new -- to football. But it hasn't always been the case in Lionland.

Verba and Woody are two precious commodities, more so than the other three "O" linemen, because of something they are able to wear on their cigar-like fingers: a Super Bowl ring. The team has too few players who have such jewelry. Dre Bly is another. But scanning the team's roster, those three should be all you'll find, who've won the Big One.

The last time the Lions won the Big One, it was called the NFL Championship. Dwight Eisenhower was president. You'd be hard-pressed to find 50% of today's younger pro football fans who have even heard of Dwight Eisenhower. Or Bobby Layne. Or Joe Schmidt. Or George Wilson. All are dead but Schmidt, by the way.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

You Never Know What You'll See At The Ballpark

I believe one of the most wonderful things about baseball is that you never know what you're going to see at any given game. A triple play? A four-home run game by a slugger? A spectacular catch? A memorable managerial ejection?

A no-hitter?

Fans attending yesterday's Washington Nationals-St. Louis Cardinals game in Washington couldn't have felt that Nats pitcher Ramon Ortiz would do anything special. After all, in his four previous starts, Ortiz was 0-3 with an 11.43 ERA. It would be remarkable, perhaps, if he survived the very first inning.

Oh, he survived alright. He survived so much, the Cards didn't even get a hit off him until the ninth inning. Ortiz came three outs away from pitching the first no-hitter in MLB in two years. Totally unforeseen. But for one afternoon, Ramon Ortiz was nearly unhittable.

I've seen Travis Fryman hit for the cycle against the Yankees at Tiger Stadium, Mickey Stanley set an AL record for putouts by an outfielder in one game, and watched an inning almost begin without a Tigers centerfielder, until Chet Lemon came running out of the dugout seconds before the first pitch -- zipping up his trousers and fastening his belt.

The thing is, you just can't predict what you might see at the old ballpark.

When you look at the roster of pitchers who've thrown no-hitters, for example, sure you see the Koufaxes and Ryans. But you also see the Dick Bosmans and Mike Witts, who were nothing special but yet were able to hold a team hitless for nine innings. Witt pitched a perfect game on the last day of the '84 season.

I saw Jack Morris come one batter away from a perfect game in 1990. The Royals' leadoff hitter got a single, was wiped out on a double play, and Morris retired the remaining 25 men in order. I still have the nearly pristine scorebook from that game. The night before, the Tigers had lost by something like 13-3. Who can tell?

Think of the games you've attended. If you think hard enough, you'll come up with cool little memories, of things that happened that maybe never happened in any other game you've attended -- or seen on television.

It's what makes baseball a grand game. Even a "meaningless" game can provide long-lasting memories.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Sometimes You Go Bust

(note: this column was written Friday night, before the news of Charles Rogers' cashiering by the Lions was annnounced)

It’s a cruel, cold term. Definitve and without any grey area. Black-and-white in its meaning.

Draft bust.

It means total, absolute failure. A complete loss. A terrible, irreversible mistake.

Hotshot college player is selected by elated pro team. The world is the young player’s oyster. Pro team thinks young player could be the key to long term success. Fans walk around wearing jerseys with young player’s name on the back. As Humphrey Bogart once said, “This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.”

Then it comes to pass that young player cannot dribble the ball without it going off his foot, or cannot throw a forward pass anywhere near an intended receiver, and by the time pro team realizes that morsel, it’s too late.

Draft bust.

Sometimes the realization is rather immediate, but mostly it takes a few nondescript seasons for it to sink in: our #1 draft pick is a bust. Eat a contract, close a chapter.

In 1972, the Portland Trailblazers picked a tall beanpole named LaRue Martin first off the board. He was “can’t miss” – that overused, often inaccurate phrase slapped onto the hotshot college kids before they’ve laced up one sneaker or cleat. LaRue Martin was the best thing that ever happened to the Trailblazers in their young history.

Until he started to play basketball.

The Blazers gave up on Martin soon enough, along with their coach – a veteran basketball man named Jack McCloskey. The summer that McCloskey was fired, the Trailblazers tried their luck with another big man, from UCLA. His name was Bill Walton. No bust, he.

The list of such goof-ups on draft day is endless. Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan. Andre Ware over any other quarterback – ANY other quarterback. Ryan Leaf, perhaps the bust of all busts, out of Washington State and into pro football ignominy.

The Lions used the #2 overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft to select a certifiable hotshot. A can’t miss receiver, named Charles Rogers from Michigan State. He was going to combine with 2002’s #3 overall pick, the quarterback Joey Harrington from Oregon, to provide the Lions with an exciting pass-and-catch duo for years to come.

Can’t miss.

Today, Charlie Rogers teeters on not being a starting wide receiver. He teeters on not being a second-string receiver. He, frankly, is teetering on not even making the final 53-man squad.

Draft bust.

If Rogers doesn’t make the Lions – and by his own admission, he doesn’t think he will – it’ll be because he just didn’t get it. Ware failed as Lions QB because he simply didn’t have NFL-caliber talent. Rogers has NFL talent, no question about that. The kid can catch a football, when he puts his mind to it. He just doesn’t always put his mind to it.

A separated shoulder early in his rookie season was a bad blow. Unlucky. No shame there. An eerily similar injury in the opening minutes of the opening game the next year, 2004, was even more dastardly. Again, no shame.

But then Rogers violated the league’s substance abuse policy last season, again early on. He was suspended for four games. Once the suspension was lifted, not much came from him, football-wise. Folks questioned his work ethic, his heart. The substance abuse thing added to his growing notoriety. He was lumped with Mike Williams, a 2005 first-round pick and fellow receiver and outcast, as, gulp, a draft bust.


Buried in the depth chart with a new coach, Rod Marinelli, Rogers didn’t do much during the pad-less mini-camps to distinguish himself as anyone worth keeping. Already, it was whispered that his fat contract was at once both a boat anchor for the Lions, and the thing keeping him from being cut.

Training camp has come and gone, and all four exhibition games have been played, and also gone is all the doublespeak and no comment-like comments from the coaching staff during July and August, cryptically describing Rogers’ and Williams’ status on the team.

But nothing cryptic, or ambiguous, or unclear about Charlie Rogers’ impending status today. No grey areas. For even if he somehow squeezes himself onto the roster, he will hardly be counted on as being the impact player the Lions envisioned on that April day in 2003, when Rogers held up his Honolulu Blue jersey with the #1 on it, a smiling team president and coach flanking him. He’d instead be the former #1 draft pick hanging on to his NFL career with the tips of his fingernails, the ones that have helped him catch oh-so-few NFL passes.

Close enough to the bottom of the barrel to be considered a draft bust.

The prevailing thought, after the doublespeak and coyness from Marinelli and offensive coordinator Mike Martz, is that Rogers is not going to be a Detroit Lion when the 53-man roster is announced at 4pm Sunday. Rogers himself believes that to be the case. And it would be because he didn’t show enough effort, didn’t take his situation seriously enough, to understand the gravity of things.

Rogers chose to treat Thursday night’s exhibition finale with all the aplomb accorded … an exhibition finale. His words said as much.

“This ain’t the Super Bowl, man. Just another game.”

Not the smartest thing to say, when your coach is on the other side of the room saying, “For a lot of guys, this is like their Super Bowl.”

Now Rogers says “my days are numbered.”

Probably. Just like what happens to a draft bust, just before the busting.

Friday, September 01, 2006

September's Flavor Of The Month? Tiger Orange

September in Detroit. Another great sports month, with choices.

U-M and MSU football. Supposedly key seasons for Lloyd Carr and John L. Smith, though neither university will admit to it. So there you are. Each plays a home-heavy schedule in September.

Lions football. Championship-less since 1957, but that doesn't stop the madding crowds.

Red Wings training camp in Traverse City. But first, a farewell bus-loading downtown, like seeing loved ones off to war.

Tigers baseball. No winning seasons since 1993.

Prefer any of the first three to Tigers baseball any year. Any year except this year.

Pennant fever will grip this town like you've never seen. It'll be enough to shove the Lions to the backburner, and when was the last time that happened in September? For this is the month of pro football hope, no matter how folly. It'll be enough to make us forget what's going on in Traverse City, especially with Stevie Y. and Shanny gone. The throngs in the Big House and in Spartan Stadium are sure to keep one ear plastered to a transistor radio, listening to the Tigers game. Or maybe even keeping away from the postgame campus parties, if the ballgame is on at night.

Folks who heretofor thought a Magic Number had something to do with the lottery will be educated on how to figure it out. Every pitch, every at-bat, every error, every managerial move, will be inflated in its importance.

"Can you believe what the Lions did on that 3rd-and-8 yesterday?" will be replaced by "Can you believe what Jim Leyland did in the eighth inning last night?" at the company water cooler.

Fans will pack their thermoses full of hot chocolate and other bellywarmers and gather their blankets and put on their face paint -- to go to Comerica Park.

Tiger Fever!

And don't look now, football and hockey: this craziness may extend well into October, too.

Heaven forbid.